drayton

A stretch of impounded marsh and woods across the Ashley River from Drayton Hall has been put into conservation easement to restore as a natural marsh. Green Eyes Aero/Provided 

Just when the effort to preserve large tracts of the rich natural and historic rivers around Charleston seemed to have hit a wall, a new burst of conservation successes has saved nearly 2,000 acres.

The latest is 104 acres of marsh and high ground across the Ashley River from Drayton Hall in the midst of the booming suburbs along Dorchester Road in North Charleston.

The conservation easement covering the site is scheduled to be announced Wednesday.

The effort augments recent easements or purchases of the Oaks Plantation, a planned park upstream, as well as land sites tied to Boone Hall Plantation and Lewisfield Plantation along or near the Cooper River.

Meanwhile, a planned subdivision has been halted, at least for now, on Gippy Plantation in Berkeley County on the Cooper River headwaters.

Why now? A handful of ongoing conservation and trust group projects seemed to come together at the same time.

"Right now we're in a period of opportunity and urgency" as development closes in on important sites, said Ashley Demosthenes of Lowcountry Land Trust, which will hold the conservation easement for the Drayton marsh.

"It's interesting timing but it wasn't intentional," she said.

The Drayton marsh, currently the backwash of an old rice field and duck hunting impoundment choked by invasive phragmites plants, will be breached and restored to tidal marsh creeks. The work will be carried out by a contractor as part of a mitigation settlement tied to pollution from a former creosote plant downstream.

George McDaniel, executive director emeritus of Drayton Hall, worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation for two decades to see the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust acquire the marshland in its view across the river, then to restore it.

Drayton recently obtained a nonprofit status independent of the National Trust. The Dorchester Trust Foundation that McDaniel is part of also contributed to buying the Oaks Plantation property upstream.

He and other conservationists have long pushed for what he called "whole place preservation" along the rivers.

"I see the public, including political leaders, realize more and more the educational, recreational and economic value of that preservation," McDaniel said.

With development pressure intensifying on the historic properties, "now is not the time to rest on laurels," he said. "Now is the time to press for preservation."

A lengthy campaign to preserve river corridor environs as Charleston boomed first seemed to hit the skids about a decade ago, as public money to do it shrank dramatically in the wake of the 2008 recession. Tax breaks that are a major incentive also became harder to make cost effective.

Conservation groups turned to a new business model: partnering with businesses and communities — groups that more than occasionally in the past have been opponents.

The effort had a number of early successes, then seemed to languish as development pressed on until this recent round. Demosthenes called it a natural ebb and flow.

"We're going through a pretty remarkable period in Charleston right now," she said. "These are areas that have been important to us for a long time."

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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